Category Archives: teaching tips

Is it better to teach three-letter or two-letter words first

Most phonics systems begin with three letter words like “dad” and “pat.”  You could just as easily begin with two letter words like “at” and “ab.”  Don’t worry if the word isn’t real.  A four- or five-year-old child won’t recognize that some words are not real.  If the child seems perplexed, explain that “ak” is not a real word.  But if the child doesn’t question a word, as long as he pronounces it correctly, skip the explanations.

I have found that skipping the two-letter short-vowel words is a mistake.   If a child becomes used to always seeing a consonant at the beginning of a word, he might become confused if a word starts with a vowel.  If a child knows his sounds and letter correspondence, then there is no reason why two-letter words should confuse him.  To avoid this problem, I would not wait to teach two-letter words.

When the child has successfully combined most of the first handful of letters into words, add more consonants but keep the same vowel.  “H,” “j” and “l” are good second choices.  You might think that “h” has different sounds when combined with “c” and “s” (“ch” and “sh”).  True.  But as a first letter, “h” always sounds like an “h.”  The sound of “h” has a one-to-one correspondence to the letter “h” at the beginnings of words; it is distinct.  The child won’t be confused because no words end in only “h.”

How long does this take?  Some kids pick up the “code” of reading almost intuitively but for others it’s a long struggle to learn.  Don’t pressure a child to move on if the child isn’t ready.

Learning to read begins with mimicking sounds

So many preschools teach the ABC’s before they teach letter sounds.  This is a mistake.  Knowing that a certain triangular shape is called an “A” is less important than knowing how to say and recognize the sound of “a.”

When I teach a beginning reader, I teach with sounds, not letters.

First I say the 42 sounds of English and ask the child to repeat those sounds.  You might think, “Is that really necessary?”  Yes, it is.  Almost always I encounter a sound or two that a child cannot say properly.  For one child it was the “z” sound.  For another it was the “ch” sound.

Reading begins with sounds, with recognizing the sounds of English and with pronouncing those sounds correctly.  Once you are sure a child can do that, only then is it proper to associate a sound with a letter.

Child seeing letter on dog's collar

One technique I have found useful is to associate a letter sound with a particular noun which begins with that sound.  This can be especially useful for vowel sounds.  I taught a four-year-old to read this way.  Picturing the known object which began with that letter sound helped her to sound out unknown objects.  When she saw picture of an ostrich, she would say “o as in octopus” and compare that “o” sound with the sound in ostrich to see if the words started with the same sound.  I used pictures of an apple, elephant, igloo, octopus and umbrella, but any pictures would do as long as they are familiar and easy to remember.  For brand new readers, I kept those pictures on the desk.

To teach a child reading, I start with consonant sounds which are distinct.  The English alphabet has 16 sounds which always sound the same at the beginning of words.  Those 16 letters are B D F H J K L M N P Q[u] R T V X and Z.

The letters “b,” “d,” “k,” and “p”  are distinct because no other consonants sound like these sounds.  A child can make a “b” sound and always match it with the letter “b”—a one-to-one correspondence.  That is what I mean by distinct.

But other sounds are not distinct.  For example, a “c” and an “s” sound quite distinct sometimes but if a “c” is followed by an “e” or an “i,” it is not distinct.  And an “s” can sound like a “z” sometimes.  A “g” can sound like a “g” or a “j” depending on which letter follows it.  There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence of a single sound to  one letter, so they are not distinct matches.

All vowels make multiple sounds.  When you start combining letter sounds to form words, start with short vowel sounds, some of which are more distinct than others.  Short “a” and “o” sounds are distinct.  “E” and “i” sounds can be hard to differentiate.  “U” sounds are easier than “e” and “i” sounds, but are harder to differentiate than “a” and “o” sounds.  So I would start associating short vowel sounds with either “a” or “o” first.  Most phonics systems start with “a,” so if you are using prepared materials, you might as well start with “a.”  But really, “a” or “o” would suffice.

Let’s recap.  Suppose a child can recognize and pronounce the sounds of English.  Then it is time to choose one short vowel and five or six distinct consonant sounds and begin to associate letters with them.  When the child can correctly assign one sound to each letter, it is time to form words with them.

The place of phonics in reading instruction

True or false?

  1. Speaking is natural. Reading is not.
  2. All students learn to read differently.
  3. Kids in early grades should receive explicit phonics instruction.
  4. About 2/3 of US fourth graders can read proficiently.

(The answers are at the end of this blog.)

How kids learn to read, how reading should be taught, and how teachers of reading should be taught are still controversial in the US. This is despite an 18-year-old exhaustive study of research on reading—the National Reading Panel— authorized by Congress in 2000 which found that phonics should be the basis of reading instruction.

Even with overwhelming research, many teacher training colleges do not teach would-be teachers how to teach phonics.  And so the graduates of those schools do not teach their students through a phonics-based approach.  As a result, 60% of US fourth graders are NOT proficient readers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Students who don’t read well by fourth grade

  • Are more likely to fall behind in other subjects.
  • Are less likely to finish high school.
  • Are more likely to be poor readers their whole lives.
  • Are more likely to be poor.
  • Are more likely to be imprisoned.

Scientific research shows that a phonetic approach to reading is crucial.  Our brains are wired to learn to speak and walk without instruction, but we cannot read without instruction.

Yet in 2016, the National Council on Teacher Quality, after reviewing the syllabi of US teacher training programs, found that only 39% are teaching their would-be teachers how to teach reading based on phonics.  This is 18 years after the US study was published!

In other words, teacher training school are either ignoring the research about how children learn to read or are willfully disregarding it.  And as a result, many students are not learning to read.

When I studied for my master’s degree in education in the early 1990’s, I took a reading course in which the instructor belittled the role of phonics in learning to read.  She said it was one of many factors, all about equal.  I thought phonics was fundamental, but I didn’t have the scientific research to back up my position.

But for the past 18 years we have had overwhelming research that shows that a phonics-based approach to teaching reading is what works best.

If your child is struggling to read, find out if his or her teacher is teaching reading using a phonics-based approach.  If you are taking your child to a tutoring center to learn reading, make sure the center is using a phonics-based approach.  If you are teaching your child to read, use phonics.

What do I mean by phonics?

  • Identifying the sounds of English. Sounds, not ABC’s, come first.
  • Matching those sounds with symbols (letters) which represent those sounds
  • Merging those sounds and symbols to form words.
  • Identifying patterns among the symbols (for example, an “e” at the end of a one-syllable word) which change or influence the sounds letters make.

(The answers are true, false, true and false.)

Teaching VC and VCC words beginning with short vowels

Many beginning readers have trouble pronouncing two- and three-letter words which begin with a short vowel such as at and ink.  Children can pronounce “cat” yet not “at.”

Just as it is easier for children to learn consonant sounds, it seems easier for them to learn words which begin with consonants than to learn words which begin with vowels.

As a result, I teach CVC words first, including words with beginning and ending blends.  Then I teach VC or VCC words.  Many one-syllable short-vowel, words begin with a vowel and end with consonant blends.  I teach such CVCC words before I teach VCC words.

First I introduce two-letter words, some of which (in, on) children have already learned as sight words.  Other two-letter words include Al, am, an, at, ax,  Ed, ex if, it, ox, up and us.

One problem in teaching such words is that many of these words don’t have pictures which form a meaningful association for children.   How do you picture “us,” for example.  Two girls, arm in arm?  The student will say “girls” or “friends” or “sisters” but not “us.”  Another problem is that some of these words, such as “ex” and “ox” are not familiar to children.  When I can, I find pictures and make flash cards to help children associate words with pictures.  But that is hard.

After I teach two-letter VC words, I teach three-letter VCC words, including add, alp, ant, app, ask, asp, act, aft, and, egg, elk, elm, elf, end, egg, imp, ink, and off.  By teaching, I mean making words of letter tiles for children to read, and then asking them to make the words I say, again using letter tiles.  I also play BINGO using cards with these words on them.  I  make lists to read (boring but necessary).  We review these words often.  I write sentences using these words for children to read, sometimes in the form of a question which they must answer with a yes or no.  (Can an ant ask an egg to sit?  Can an elk add 2 + 2?  The sillier, the better.)

You can’t assume that because a child can read “cat,” she can also read “act.”  Tiny words beginning with short vowel sounds should be taught explicitly and should be reviewed until you are sure the child can sound them out properly.

How does an almost two-year-old read?

How does an almost two- year-old “read”?  What does such a tiny child “read”?  How can we encourage the reading habit in such a tike?

I spent a week in early September with a 21-month-old who wanted me to “read” to him many times daily.  He taught me:

Toddlers love to hold books, turn their pages, point to objects they recognize and name those words.

They do not like to be read paragraph-long passages.

They do like to be read text if it is short. “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?” is an example of text that works.  Single syllable words, words the child knows, words which are repeated, tiny sentences—these hold a child’s interest just long enough before he wants to turn the page.

Pint-sized cardboard books are easy for a toddler to hold. The pages are easy to turn.  And the cardboard is able to withstand the rough handling that a tiny child gives.

“Reading” often means “studying” a picture to discover what it holds. “Balloon!” he might shout, or “Piggy eat.”

Order of pages is arbitrary to a tiny child. Sometimes he will prefer to skip some pages to head right for the picture he prefers.  Sometimes he will flip back and forth, making a connection between one page and another.  For example, he might find the moon on one page and then go back to a previous page to find the moon there.

Simple drawings are best. Bright colors with plain backgrounds help the child to focus.

Animals—especially baby animals with their mothers—fascinate many children. But one time an adult horse might be a “mommy” and another time that same image is a “daddy.”  There’s no need to correct.

Touchable books captivate toddlers. A child eagerly strokes books with inserted fabric for a sandpapery pig’s nose or a furry dog’s ear.  Books with flaps are fun to open even if the child has opened the same flap many times.  Books with cutouts—like the holes that the Hungry Caterpillar eats—are just the right size for a little one to stick his finger into.

Many times, you, the adult, needn’t read a word.  Rather you might wait for the child to take the lead.  He might point to a picture and say a word.  You might repeat his word to show you are listening or to offer correct pronunciation.

Many times all he wants is for you to listen, to share his reading time without distraction. By being willing to focus only on him, to listen wholeheartedly, you teach the child that you value what he is doing.  Your unhurried presence tells the child that this activity—reading—is important.

When a word has a single consonant between two vowels, sometimes (not often) the consonant goes with the first syllable.

Usually when a two-syllable word has a single consonant between two vowels, the consonant goes with the second syllable.  This pattern forms a first syllable ending in a long or open vowel.  Some words like this include

  • minus
  • tulip
  • pupil
  • motel

Because the majority of two syllable words with a consonant between two vowels follow this pattern, children should learn this as the rule before they learn exceptions.  Lists of words like this are available in many reading workbook series or online.

But students need to know that a few words don’t follow this rule of pronouncing the consonant with the second syllable.  Some words are pronounced with the consonant ending the first syllable and forming a CVC first syllable.

I have not found readily available lists of words like these, so I am including some here.

  • manic, panic, colic, comic, frolic, sonic, tonic
  • oven
  • Janet, planet
  • punish
  • olive
  • livid, timid, valid
  • delta
  • rebel, shrivel, level, civil, devil, hovel, Nevil
  • deluge
  • lizard, wizard
  • driven, given, Kevin, seven
  • second

To find if a word is an exception to the rule, have the student pronounce the word with the consonant starting the second syllable (following the rule).  If the student does not recognize the word, then have the student pronounce the word with the consonant ending the first syllable.  Many times this second pronunciation will make sense, but not if the student is unfamiliar with the word.  In that case, you will need to pronounce the word correctly for the student to hear and explain the meaning of the word to help the student remember it.

Is copying words the best way to learn spelling?

A typical elementary grade spelling homework assignment goes like this:

  • Monday night: Copy each word correctly five times.
  • Tuesday night: Arrange the words in alphabetical order.
  • Wednesday night: Write each word in a sentence.
  • Thursday night: Take a practice spelling test.
  • Friday day: Take a spelling test in school.

Child Browsing the Web

The theory behind these homework assignments is that the more children write words, the more likely they remember the word’s spelling.  But will they?

According to Marie Ripple*, author of a book on how to teach spelling, here are some things to consider if you hope this type of writing and rewriting of spelling words will help a child to learn to spell.

  • Copying is a visual process. See the word, write the word the same way.  But with so many young children being primarily kinesthetic learners, copying is a method of learning which does not tap into many children’s natural way of learning.
  • Copying is a memory process. Research has shown that in learning to read, memorizing words is a far less effective method than using phonics.  Reading and spelling are closely related.  So using phonics to show how letter sounds are combined to make certain sounds is a better way for most kids to learn spelling.
  • Copying can be an “automatic pilot” situation for children. They write words over and over while thinking about something else.  When they are done, they have retained little.

Instead of copying, Ripple recommends a variety of approaches to teaching kids spelling.

  • Combine visual, auditory and kinesthetic processes when you teach spelling. Don’t rely on one sensory process.
  • Use the Orton-Gillingham approach, used to treat dyslexia.  It explains why words are spelled the way they are and how certain letter pairings lead to certain sounds.
  • Teach a child based on what he or she already knows, ignoring what grade the child is in.
  • Teach the logic of English spelling. According to Ripple, 97% of English words follow predictable spelling patterns which can be learned.
  • Customize teaching spelling to a particular child based on that child’s preferred learning style and speed. Some kids need little review; some need constant review.

*For more information of Ripple’s book, go to http://info.allaboutlearningpress.com/6-ways-spelling-easy-thank-you?submissionGuid=18c9c079-27d3-4d1e-8965-917681da5d93